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Why We Crave Sugar

Why We Crave Sugar

Written by
February 12, 2016
Updated February 24, 2019
Category: Nutrition

Sugar is one of the most damaging parts of our modern diet. Many of the diseases we suffer from are tied to excess consumption of sugar and processed carbohydrates.

Obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, fatty liver disease and even Alzheimer’s (Type 3 Diabetes) all have links to excess refined sugar and carbohydrate consumption.

We have been conditioned to accept the atrocious amount of sugar in the modern diet and think of it as 100% normal. Next time you go to the grocery store, flip over the packaged foods and read the ingredient list. You will absolutely find a form of sugar listed. Even the “health foods” at the supermarket are loaded with sugar. There are over 56 names for sugar, and food manufacturers use this to their advantage.

Even foods that are often considered healthy like granola, low fat yogurt and breakfast cereals all have so much added sugar they’re more like soda than health food.

Why is it that all packaged foods at the grocery store contain so much added sugar? And how did sugar become such a large part of our foods? There are a TWO very important events that dramatically altered the food industry and our intake of refined sugar as a society.

Two Big Milestones

Why We Crave Sugar
The introduction of refined sugars into our diet took place about four hundred years ago as sugarcane began being processed into cane sugar and spread throughout the western hemisphere and shipped back to the Old World. So began the descent.

Years later, society moved away from more natural foods that easily spoiled and instead adopted industrialized processed foods that would last long enough to be shipped around the world.

Refined ï¿¼sugar, of course, makes food taste much better and is a cheap preservative. So making foods last longer and taste better by adding refined sugars quickly became the industry standard. Without any consideration of the health consequences, refined sugar became an ingredient in almost all processed and packaged foods.

Another huge milestone that changed the way we still eat today was the low fat movement. The USDA urged Americans to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol at all costs because they were believed to be two risk factors for heart disease and cholesterol.

Saturated fats and cholesterol became public enemy #1 overnight. But we now know that this is a perfect example of bad science and cherry-picked data.

To meet the new low fat demand, the food industry quickly began making low fat “health foods”. But when fat is been removed, food tastes terrible, so something had to replace it. The answer? Sugar. After all, sugar is fat free!

People in the United States are consuming mass quantities of refined sugar every day. When you combine this excessive intake of refined sugar with processed carbohydrates, it creates a perfect metabolic storm and sets up strong cravings and addictions to sugar.

Only when people start to avoid added sugars do they realize how strong their cravings are, and the fact that they might be addicted to sugar.

No one is to blame for this dysfunctional relationship with sugar. We are hardwired to enjoy and crave sweet foods. They provide a strong evolutionary signal of nutrient and energy density which was an evolutionary advantage for us to consume in mass quantities when we were hunters.

Primal Brains, Modern Foods

Why We Crave Sugar

Our brains have built-in evolutionary mechanisms that are major drivers for our behavior. Many of these evolutionary drives are meant for survival – one of the which is eating.
When we eat sugar, there are reward systems in the brain that are stimulated and release neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Because dopamine causes us to feel good, we have the evolutionary instinct to repeat that behavior – in this case, reaching for another Krispy Kreme donut even though you shouldn’t have eaten the first, second, or third one.

This reward system is designed to help us navigate the behaviors to improve our chances of survival. These reward systems once played pivotal roles in our survival. These days though, they don’t serve us in the same way.

Our ancestors used to regularly encounter feast and famine scenarios seasonally. When food was available, they knew to gorge and eat as much as they could because those resources would not be available in the future.

A Hijacked Reward System

Why We Crave Sugar

Today we have the same primal reward systems in place that guide our decisions around food as when we were hunter/gatherers.

The refined sugar that we eat these days is much sweeter and concentrated than what can be found in nature. As a result of this concentrated and hyper sweet energy source, our brain becomes flooded with dopamine causing an overstimulation of the reward system.

The dopamine signaling that is meant to guide our dietary decisions has been been taken over by these sweet foods.

It overwhelms our reward system. The same opioid pathways in the brain that sugar stimulates are also affected by heroin and morphine. This is why some people seem powerless against sugar-laden foods, and can’t control themselves – especially when it comes to Oreos.

The Poison is in the Dose

Why We Crave Sugar

As a person gains greater tolerance to sugar, more is needed to elicit the same feeling of pleasure.

When we constantly flood the brain with dopamine, the brain will pull receptors inside of the cell to prevent dopamine overload in the brain.

While this person may not realize it, they are are chasing the “sugar high” and are no longer eating for nourishment. The sugar high becomes more important to the person than the volume of sugar they are consuming.

Eating to achieve a feeling leads a person to emotional/stress eating instead of eating out of hunger. With emotional eating and fewer dopamine receptors, the person may not achieve the feeling they are after. Instead of being used for energy, sugar becomes a drug.

The Sugar Blues

Why We Crave Sugar

Once a person realizes their sugar consumption has gotten out of hand, they almost always dramatically cut back or eliminate sugar from their diet.

Without sugar to stimulate the pleasure center, and far less dopamine being released, the person does not feel the same pleasure they did before. As a result, the mental and physical cravings for sugar get much stronger.

This experience is called withdrawal. Tolerance and withdrawal are the hallmarks of addiction, similar to what people experience with cigarettes, alcohol, or cocaine. These withdrawals and extreme cravings are what makes eliminating sugar from the diet so difficult.

Your Plan to Kick Sugar

Why We Crave Sugar

Each person is a bio­-individual and has unique needs. Because I am not sitting down for a consultation with each and everyone of you, it is difficult to say what will be the best plan of action for you personally.

Instead I am going to provide a basic plan and encourage you to experiment. Use what you find helpful and discard what isn’t.

Focus on one habit every two to three weeks depending on how difficult you feel the habit will be for you.

It’s vital that you always play a game you know you can win. Instead of trying to be perfect and do the habit seven days a week, start with three days and make sure you have that mastered first and foremost. Eventually you will develop momentum and you’ll notice the sugar cravings have less of a hold on you.

There will be setbacks and that is expected; but focus on the progress, not perfection. Treat each moment like another chance of success and make the better choice. Seize that next moment to get back on track and think about the progress you’re making!

Below you will find a breakdown of the areas that should be considered when trying to kick sugar followed by a 6-week plan to help you break the sugar addiction cycle.

❖ Eat a Lower Carbohydrate Diet:

● By going on a lower carbohydrate diet, you will be less reliant on sugar as a source of fuel.
● You will experience more stabilized blood sugar throughout the day. Your energy and mood will improve leading to better self control and willpower.
● When you do consume carbohydrates, make sure they come from nature: sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams, squash, beets, taro root, carrots.
● Consume the majority of your carbohydrates at night to help with sleep, hormone production and recovery. It also allows you to burn more fat throughout the day by focusing on protein, fat, and veggies.

❖ Make Sleep a Priority:

● Willpower is a limited resource. Lack of sleep zaps that willpower and leads to more impulsive behavior.
● With poor sleep, the body is less effective at regulating blood sugar which is large driver of our appetite and the kinds of foods we crave.
● It has been proven that lack of sleep leads to cravings for processed carbohydrates and refined sugars.

❖ Eat Good Fats:

● Good fats play a number of roles in our health but an important one is slowing blood sugar spikes to help us better regulate energy and mood
● Fat is a longer burning source of fuel for the body so you don’t need to think about food as much when healthy fats are the primary source of fuel.
● Fat and protein are both high satiating foods. They keep you feeling fuller for longer which, in turn, reduces cravings.
● Sources of good fats include coconut oil, butter, salmon, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, olive oil, and nut butters.

❖ Daily Stress Management:

● Pick something to do each time you feel stressed to help alleviate it instead of mask it by chowing down. It could be something simple like taking your dog for a walk, listening to a favorite song, meditating, going to a yoga class or writing in a journal. Any time you feel the craving to eat sugar this activity is your new default.

❖ Exercise:

● Many people will choose to avoid unhealthy foods because they have made a trip to the gym and they know it will reverse all the hard work they have put in there.
● On the other hand when you think you have earned sugar because you went to the gym keep this saying in the back of your mind: “You are not a dog. Do not reward yourself with food.”

❖ Keep Snacks On-Hand

● Things do not always go as we have them planned out. Instead of getting caught starving and reaching for sugar or processed foods, keep a bag or jerky, nuts, dried coconut, or almond butter packs  in your work bag or car.

Week 1: Snacks

● ‹Remove all foods that contain added sugar and processed carbohydrates from your house.
● Go to the store and pick up raw nuts, unsweetened coconut chips and sugar free jerky.
● Keep these in a place you will have access to when you are most tempted. Maybe keep half in your car and half in your desk at work.

Weeks 2 and 3: Lower Carbs + Protein and Fat 

● For breakfast, focus on protein, fat and veggies. Eggs, nuts, bacon, sausage, avocados, full fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, leftover meats and any vegetables you like.
● Make hard boiled eggs or a big quiche to prep food and have on-hand for the week. If you have the time, make yourself some eggs and bacon for breakfast.
● Remove dense sources of carbohydrates from your lunch. Big fresh salads with lots of protein, leftover roasted vegetables with meat. Canned sardines with half an avocado. Get creative with your food. Just avoid bread, pasta, chips, crackers, fruit juice, and all other forms of sugar.

Weeks 4 and 5: Exercise and Stress Management

● Getting thirty minutes of exercise at least three times a week. This needs to be an appropriate form of exercise for you personally. This could be in the form of a morning walk or it could be a thirty minute spin class at the gym.
● As you progress, increase the amount of days you are exercising. If you are lifting weights, work with a professional who can show you proper form so you don’t get injured.
● Pick a form of stress management such as walking, reading, journaling, listening to music and do it for three minutes first thing in the morning.
● I want you to perform this stress management practice three times a week. As you make progress and it becomes part of your routine, you can increase the days or duration of your practice.

Week 6: Sleep

If I had the ability to bottle the benefits of sleep and sell it as a supplement I would be a millionaire by now.

● Make your room pitch black when you sleep. This is going to seem weird at first but it will dramatically improve your sleep quality. You don’t need fancy blackout shades, but make sure your room is as dark as you can get it while you sleep.
● Avoid caffeine past noon as it keeps many people awake and can have negative effects on your sleep quality.
● Develop a bedtime routine. If you need help winding down, try foam rolling for 10 minutes then read a book.
● Avoid screens 15 minutes before bed. As it becomes more of a habit, increase the time to 30 minutes, working towards the goal of avoiding screens for 60 minutes prior to bed.
● Steer clear of stressful activities 1­2 hours before bed, this goes along with avoiding screen times and will help you to develop a bedtime routine.

I hope you can use the habits and 6-week plan to start getting rid of your sugar or carb cravings and break that addictive cycle!

Alex McMahon is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and founder of Evolve Nutritional Therapy LLC. He practices nutrition in Portland Oregon helping clients achieve optimal health using whole foods, nutritious movement and lifestyle adjustments. Alex writes for Barbell Shrugged, and runs his own blog; E​at To Evolve.​When he isn’t meeting with clients, giving talks or researching nutrition, Alex can be found training Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu and lifting. To learn more visit his website at: w​
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